Scotland have to follow England template in Denmark - Billy Gilmour's inclusion not up for debate this time

A gargantuan moment of truth is about to roll around for Scotland. Their World Cup qualifiers in Denmark and Austria over the next week-and-a-bit – if not the Moldova home fixture sandwiching them – will tell us if anything has really been changed by the country once again being major final participants.

Aberdeen's Lewis Ferguson is a newcomer to the Scotland squad.
Aberdeen's Lewis Ferguson is a newcomer to the Scotland squad.

The appearance of Steve Clarke’s men at Euro 2020 – to end the nation’s 23-year exile from top level tournament football – was presented as the launchpad for a new era. Yet, unless they produce something dramatic in Copenhagen on Wednesday, and follow that up with a notable outcome away to the Austrians seven days later it will feel like … well, as you were. Short of taking four points from these two encounters – surely Moldova will be overcome at Hampden next Sunday – their prospects of finishing in the top two in Group F will be seriously diminished and a sixth straight World Cup without a Scotland presence will loom large.

It must be said that Scotland will head to Denmark, and to a lesser extent Austria, more in hope than expectation. They remain a modest 49th in the FIFA world rankings. The Danes are a lofty 11th, following their progression to the semi-finals of Euro 2020, while the Austrian’s extra-time loss to eventual winners Italy in the last 16 of the summer jamboree has then sitting 23rd in the rankings.

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Scotland don’t tend to prosper at the homes of nations in such exalted placings, and Clarke’s side may not exactly have dazzled in the Euros. Yet, to have gone to Wembley and outplayed an England side that sit fourth in the FIFA rankings for a creditable draw must offer something of a template for how Clarke should set out his side next Wednesday. And that means supplying Billy Gilmour with his second senior start for his country.

Gilmour has impressed already while on loan at Norwich City.

The 20-year-old gave a glimpse of what he could offer to Clarke with his assured, mature display that night, in tandem with a now revitalised, newly conferred Celtic captain Callum McGregor. Only to be then lost to Coivd-19 for the disappointing group deciding loss to Croatia.

Gilmour’s decision to leave Chelsea for a season-long loan with Norwich City means he is now getting regular game-time at the beginning of this season. And though he has endured some chastening defeats, that he is burnishing his talents is reflected in his being voted man of the match by BBC online even as the Midlands club were whacked 5-0 by Manchester City last weekend.

Clarke believes the move will benefit both the player and his country. “We had a little chat over the course of the summer when we were together. Billy was driving it, he was saying he needed to play,” said the Scotland manager. “It’s going to be interesting. I watched his first game against Liverpool at Carrow Road. He’s going to have to adapt his game, he’s going to have to find a different game. I think it’s a great move for him, but he’s now going to be playing at a team that’s not going to dominate the ball, that’s not going to have the best players on the pitch every week. He’s probably learned that in the first two games against Liverpool and Manchester City. It’ll be a good learning experience for Billy and with the qualities he’s got I’m sure he’ll quickly adapt and do well for Norwich.

“[Chelsea] put players out on loan all the time and I think it’s credit to Billy’s abilities that they didn’t loan Billy out when he was 17 or 18, they kept him in the squad and kept working with him. I spoke to Frank [Lampard] a number of times about him and Frank loved him. He hasn’t had the same opportunities since Thomas Tuchel took over but I’m not knocking Thomas Tuchel because he’s gone in there and done a great job. It’s a good move for Billy and probably the right move for him. He’ll learn a little bit more about football this year. Playing in the best team every week and playing with the best players every week, you’re going to improve yourself. But sometimes the challenge is to play against the best players every week and play against a team that’s better than you. Norwich will come across that a few times this season as they have already, but Billy will learn from it and hopefully it’ll benefit us as well. He’ll not be on the ball as much – Chelsea would normally have 65-70 per cent possession and Norwich [don’t], although they’re a team that want to play possession-based football. That is why they took Billy. Once they settle into the league their results and performances will improve.”

Billy Gilmour put in an impressive performance for Scotland against England in his first start for Scotland.

In terms of team selection, injury means that – unfortunately – there will be no conundrum about moving Scott McTominay from his favoured three-man defence and installing him alongside Gilmour and McGregor. The ability of Clarke to field a back three of Grant Hanley, Liam Cooper and Kieran Tierney ought to soften the blow of not having Man Utd man back in there. Aberdeen’s Lewis Ferguson has come in to beef up the squad but is very unlikely to trouble the midfield starting slots. Kenny McLean, Stuart Armstrong and David Turnbull are ahead of him in the pecking order.

Then there is John McGinn, the midfield tyro. It looks likely he will miss the Denmark match due to Covid-19 protocols. With the twin strike-force of Che Adams and Lyndon Dykes not functioning as desired in the summer, playing McGinn off Adams appeared a better bet, but Clarke may have to rethink that. Regardless, he has to take the best of what Scotland have to offer – and offered in the Euro 2020 – and build on that. Even if any reconstruction efforts might not be sufficient to pay-off in the short-term.

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Scott McTominay will be missing from the squad after getting injured with Manchester United.